As previously mentioned, the writing process is recursive and not the same for every writer. As a result choosing how to organize chapters in this text is a difficult, if not impossible, task. While one writer may begin with character, another may develop their plot first. That said, it seems relevant to me to consider premise first and foremost as it affects the development of both characters and plot.
Why is premise even more critical than character and plot? I intend to publish my novels. Of course, not all will be published or even finished, but since I want to see my books in the market, I have to consider the market. Starting a project by developing the premise of a work forces authors to consider the market early in the project, which I would argue is a time-saving, and in this industry, spirit-saving measure.
For instance, if I want to write a book about a sparkling vampire that falls in love with a human, it would be wise for me to study the market to determine: a) has this concept been “done” before, which of course it has, and b) is this a concept that audiences (i.e. agents, editors, and readers) are eager to consume. Had I not taken the time to study the market to determine that my sparkling vampire premise may not be the best option, then I may have spent a year or more writing a book that would struggle to find a place in the market based on premise alone.
Let me be clear that time writing is not time wasted. We grow as writers when we write, so even if a book does not find its way to print, it has advanced us, likely professionally and personally. That said, for those eager to see their books in print, an awareness of premise and its impact is critical.
As is the case with all aspects of writing, authors will value a study of the market to varying degrees.
A self-published author who writes quickly and publishes multiple books per year may look more closely at what is selling and write to those tropes. An author who publishes fewer books, perhaps one every few years, may consider some aspects of the market, but generally write what drives them as the market will continue changing as they develop their project. And then there are the other dominant authors whose writing helps shape the market.
The takeaway here is that you, as an author, can choose how much you want to consider the market when you develop your premise. However, if you intend to publish your work, especially traditionally (i.e. with a small press or large publisher), some consideration of what is hot and what is definitely not is helpful to you.
That is where premise comes in.
So what is a premise?
The premise is the basic concept of your story. Agents and editors will note they want to see “high concept” ideas. That means the premise can be explained in a few, highly attractive words that will grab the attention of audiences.
The premise is delivered in a brief statement, often referred to as a logline. The logline provides a kernel of information. It might be a sentence or two. It could be a phrase. Industry professionals often refer to it as the “hook” of a story in that it hooks the reader. The term “high concept” relies entirely on a novel’s premise. A premise should be unique and original, which is not easy to do. It’s often why the pitching strategy of x meets y works.
For instance, Gossip Girl has been done before, right? What about a book with the logline Gossip Girl meets The Hunger Games? Or what about The Golden Girls meets The Hunger Games?
See how meshing two well-known concepts can make something entirely new? If a reader loves The Hunger Games, they may wonder how that is going to be similar to The Golden Girls. Or Gossip Girl? What concepts will the author merge? What new concepts will be added?
This “high concept” of x meets y is a way to appeal to readers en mass, and that is really the goal of a high concept. There are other templates authors can use to develop a high concept premise as well.
Here I've included a few templates for writing a strong premise and examples.
- The character and conflict template: In this template, you are sharing the main character and the conflict.
- A brilliant hacker races to stop a digital apocalypse.
- A teen witch battles dark forces to save her town.
- The X Meets Y Pitch: In this template, a writer will include two “comp” or comparable titles that when merged suggest their own story.
- It’s Groundhog Day meets Pretty Woman.
- It’s Toy Story meets Transformers.
- The X But Different Pitch: In this template, a writer will include one, or perhaps two comp titles but then note a key difference.
- It’s Castaway but in outer space.
- It’s Groundhog Day meets Pretty Woman but in a high fantasy world.
- The Full Pitch: In this template, the author will include the character, obstacles, and stakes of the story in one sentence.
- A determined scientist braves a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing mutant creatures and rival factions, to discover a cure for a deadly virus threatening the last remnants of humanity.
- A retired detective with dementia investigates his own unsolved case before his memory fades.
What did you think? Did any of these “hook” your attention? Did they make you wonder, “How is the author going to merge those two concepts? What would that look like?” Or, “How are the characters going to get out of that mess?” If the hooks got you thinking, if they piqued your interest, they served their purpose.
The benefit of developing a premise early in the process is that as you write, you can keep that focus in mind, and if that focus is already appealing to readers, you are a step ahead before you even begin. But how do you know what will appeal to readers? You ask.
Blake Snyder, who pioneered the “Save the Cat” concept we will discuss later in the course, suggested a very simple way to determine if your novel idea has a strong premise. He suggested you develop a one-line pitch and then just tell people - family, friends, random strangers in the store - what you’re writing. How do they react? Are they intrigued? Are they confused? Are they bored?
Trust the consensus of reactions - not one reaction. Also, share with people in your target audience, as that will carry the most value later. Finally, be sure to share with people who don't already love and admire you. That is where you will find the most honest reactions to your premise.
Another way to know whether your idea has potential is to read - A LOT. Reading what is being published will help you see what has been overdone. Keep in mind as well that what is being published today was acquired in many cases by publishers at least 18-24 months ago, so it was being written at least two to three years ago. That makes it especially difficult to be current with your ideas and your writing if you’re looking at what’s published today.
Let’s step back, though, and reflect on your purpose. If you want to write a story that is near and dear to you and you have no care whether it is ever published, that’s fine. Write what you want! But if you have hopes of publishing your novel some day, then it’s imperative you think about concept. Agents tend to receive hundreds of queries each week! Most agents only sign a couple new authors each year. See how those numbers are not in a writer’s favor?
That’s why it’s crucial to have a premise that makes an agent or editor raise their eyebrows and read the next sentence of your query. All of the other aspects of a novel - structure, character, voice, point of view, tension, etc. we will discuss this semester matter, too. But it’s the premise that gets your metaphorical foot in the door.
What are tropes?
As you consider premise, it is wise to have an understanding of tropes. A trope is a common character or plot element in a story. So for instance, we experienced a rise in the vampire troops with the successes of True Blood, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries. The Harry Potter books influenced an increase in “the chosen one” trope (i.e. a “chosen one” must save the world). There’s the zombie trope, the orphan trope, the witch trope - you get the idea. Each genre has its own tropes, for instance in romance there are: enemies to lovers, slow burn romance, insta-love for those love at first sight stories, best friends to lovers, next-door neighbor to lovers, best friend’s older brother romance, etc.
Some tropes are en vogue; others are overdone - at the moment. As the market changes, the interest in various tropes evolve as well. The key with tropes is to understand they exist and do some independent research regarding your story tropes. If you’re writing science fiction, what are the tropes of science fiction to avoid? If you’re writing romance, same question? What tropes are overdone in young adult novels? In mystery? In fantasy? In literary fiction? Use that knowledge as power to develop the story that you want to write while also considering the expectations of the current market accordingly.
- Make a list of three of your favorite books or movies. Then, set out to the great internet to find the pitches for those works. They may be listed on the movie poster, on the back cover copy, or even on the front cover of the book. What are those loglines that the agents, editors, publishers, producers, and film companies released in the hopes of catching the attention of their audience? After you locate and consider them, write about what you learned through the process of studying the premises of the works you love.
- Consider your novel premise. Write the premise in one sentences using the x meets y strategy. Then write the premise in another sentence using the template: When [character] wants [character’s goal] but [obstacles], [character] has no choice but to [do what?] Or [what will happen - what are the stakes if the character fails]. Feel free to manipulate this template however you like; after all, not all writers think the same!
- Consider your novel genre and age category. For instance, if you are writing YA fantasy, research the tropes for YA fantasy. Pay particular attention to dates of the resources you’re studying. If they are recent, great. If they are not, then still read them, and then store that knowledge to get a sense of how the tropes have changed over time for your genre and age category. In studying the tropes, what have you learned that you may want to avoid? What tropes will you twist and turn to make something new and interesting?
9 Common Character Tropes and Tips for Avoiding Them
10 Simple Plot Exercises you Need to do BEFORE You Write Your Novel!
How to Avoid Clichés in Writing
How to Ensure Your Story Has a Strong Premise
The Main Reason Your Story’s Premise is Important
The Premise of Your Story
What is High Concept?
"Chapter 3: The Power of Premise" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.